“I Don’t Have Time to Lead”

I considered it a personal failure when I learned that a client team I’ve been coaching for the last several months has recently been working on deliverables without my knowledge. They haven’t asked for feedback and it hasn’t appeared on any project schedules. Where did I go wrong?

In a chat with the product manager, I asked why no one had told me what they were working on. He assured me these documents were “just for them” and that they wouldn’t be sharing them outside of the team; they were personal exercises to ensure they understood the subject matter and got some practice communicating it visually.

“I apologize for the communication breakdown,” the product manager said. “But this is what happens when there’s no project lead.”

I was perplexed. For the months that I’ve been on this project — establishing a user experience practice, traveling with the team to visit customers, reviewing documentation, leading workshops — I was quite clear on who was playing the role of the project lead: him. Apparently he didn’t agree.

“But you’re the project lead,” I said.
“No, I’m the product manager,” he said.
“Yes, I know. But you’re the person who knows everyone else on the team, has spent the most time working on this product, who is our greatest subject matter expert, who communicates regularly with all of the stakeholders, and who is defining our project timeline. Doesn’t that make you the project lead?”
“No way,” he said. “I don’t have the time to lead. I’m already way overextended as it is.”

I was floored. The roles in this organization are so starkly defined that even the person “playing” the role is afraid to claim the title, lest they be saddled with all of the other responsibilities it entails. Though he agreed he’s responsible for the product, though he agreed he’s responsible for the timeline, he declined to take responsibility for the team.

As a result, no one is responsible for the team; when the team is not communicating well, there’s no one to address it. We’re all just responsible for ourselves, which means we aren’t much of a team at all.

I spent two days really disappointed with the guy for refusing to be a leader. If he doesn’t have the time to lead, he doesn’t have the time to succeed. A fear of accountability from the person who is assumed to be the leader will no doubt lead to a fear of accountability from the rest of the team. No accountability, no integrity. No integrity, no respect. Total fail.

Then I got to thinking about where this all started: me being out of the loop. Was that really due to someone else’s lack of leadership, or was it due to mine?

I have to accept the reality that people aren’t sharing their internal progress with me because they don’t believe they’re supposed to or because they simply don’t want to. I’m not seen as the team leader because I never claimed the role. I’ve been waiting for someone else to do it.

This is an ongoing challenge as a consultant: I’m seen as a thought-leader, but not as a team leader. And it’s entirely my doing. I don’t work in their office, I don’t sit with them at lunch, I don’t share their culture, I don’t get held to the same standards. I’m a free agent. That’s the role I’ve chosen, because it’s the life I want. So how can I really blame anyone for seeing me as an outsider? I am.

I’m not sure how to reconcile this. I believe I have the skills the team needs to succeed, and that’s ultimately what I’m getting paid for. But if not being a full-time team member means I can’t be the team leader — and the natural team leader isn’t interested in the job — is the project doomed? Am I really providing them with any value? Can I coach them towards better teamwork without being in the game?

I don’t know the answers and I don’t know how to proceed. It’s scary to put this out there, but if I don’t share my challenges, I’ll never learn how to overcome them. I’m eager to get your advice. If you’ve experienced this before, seen it happen to someone else, or have any insights to impart, please leave a comment.

Do I need to find a way to lead the team? Or do I need to accept that I’m not the leader and ultimately can’t control the outcome?

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  1. says

    I think you’re on the right track here. The product manager IS the project manager in many instances. A company can’t hire a contractor to augment the team and expect them to be accountable for the team’s communications and deadlines. Unless, as a the contractor, you are explicitly told (or asked) to be the project manager, you are not. It’s not like you are selling PM services, right?

    That said, you make a good point in that every responsible professional “leads” in some way. From what you’ve explained, you are leading your parts of the project. If there are issues or questions about next steps, you would naturally take that to the person you expect to be leading. If that person gives you a BS excuse for not leading, move on and ask someone else.

    Sure, you could lead. But is that what you’re contracted to do? My assumption is that it would require more of your time and effort, and change the scope of your work. Bringing that up might produce a leader on the client’s side really quickly.

  2. says

    I work in a small company where the product team is essentially made up of less than a handful of engineers, one UX person (myself), one visual designer and one product manager. We work on small projects in an agile way. After struggling with this leadership issue for a long time, and the fact that people weren’t always satisfied with the outcome (whether it was design about engineering, or the other way around), we decided to give full leadership of a project to the engineer working on it. The other 3 people (UX, design and product manager) are on every project. The team moves together from pre-project development brainstorming phase, to deciding the scope to implementation. Every person is responsible for their area of “expertise” but at the end of the day, the engineer is the one responsible to move the project to completion as he is the one to decide what is feasible and what is not and go on with building it afterwards. I have gotten to really love this way of doing things as it eliminates a lot of friction and gets everyone on the same page at every step of the process. It also gives ownership to the engineer who does not feel like a design was brought on to them.

  3. says

    Who is the product manager’s manager? it seems to me, that is where the leadership is lacking. Surely, they should be defining what the product manager’s role is? Leader or not. Accountability always (or should always) goes right to the top.

  4. Cj says

    Actually, I think your non-project-lead shows remarkable clarity about the burden of leadership. Simply calling someone a lead does not make it so. He is acknowledging that he does not have the bandwidth to perform all of his duties as well as providing effective leadership.

    I also agree with Bradley Hebdon, however, that this person’s manager is the root source of the failure. Taking on more than the team can carry is the true “fail” in this story.

  5. says

    In my company we all work in separate silos. The product developer creates business requirements and hands off a business requirement doc to IA, IA does research based on these docs and creates interactions to deliver wireframes, the wireframes get tossed over a wall to visual design who makes it look pretty and changes whatever they want, then both IA deliverables and design comps get thrown over another wall to development. The entire time there is a product manager who claims responsibility and sets unrealistic timelines based on what the other leaders of the company desire…”have this done in 2 weeks”

    It’s a nightmare and beyond waterfall. We have someone accountable for everything yet it doesn’t matter because in the end we are creating a crappy product because there is no user testing and no collaboration involved.

    Your situation seems more ideal than the one I am going through and the one I am going through is not out of the norm I would imagine. It has happened to me before so I can’t say it is a 1 time thing.

    I would love it if the organization overlords would trust the experts they hired instead of dictating. When you reach a certain level in an org, isn’t your job to be responsible for understanding talent, hiring that talent, managing that talent, and supervising progress instead of dictation of “I want, I think, I need, do it like this”?

    Let me do my job and I know I could help, otherwise you are going to get sub-par results. Simplify and collaborate, even if through iteration.

    My 2 cents.

  6. says

    As a product manager, I’m shocked that someone else with the same title would claim to not be the project lead. Team leadership is an essential part of product management in most online software companies–certainly every one I’ve worked at.

    However, I’m not clear what the perceived lack of a project lead had to do with your exclusion from the deliverables in question, especially since he also said they were just personal exercises for the team to learn to communicate visually. To me it sounds like the PM gave you his reason for not having shared the deliverables (“just for us! nothing to do with you!”) and when you pressed further he felt uncomfortable and started reaching for other excuses.

    w/r/t your final questions: As a consultant I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be an effective team leader, unless you contract for long-term projects and work on-site with the team. Perhaps there’s a way it can be done, but in my opinion it’s unlikely and it’s not the role you’re being hired to fill. However, it sounds like perhaps you could work on specific messaging to the team about sharing their work with you, even if it’s “just brainstorming.”

    • barbara says

      I’m with you on these points. Well said, especially when you said “when you pressed further he felt uncomfortable and started reaching for other excuses”. I’ve been in similar situations and it’s not fun. Roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined up front before any project or team assignments can begin.

    • says

      > it’s unlikely that you’ll be an effective team leader, unless you contract for long-term projects and work on-site with the team.

      Exactly right. It’s not useful to have a part-time leader—it can’t be you—so the PM needs to take on the team-leadership role. If they’re unwilling or uninterested in doing that, the #1 priority for you as a coach might be to help them take that on. If they’re “too busy” to lead, they probably need to delegate other responsibilities. If they’re unable / unwilling to lead, the team needs to find a new PM.

  7. says

    You’ve nailed the most important symptoms of life in today’s world. Everyone’s a consultant who doesn’t rely on the company’s retirement program. Teams are formed for single projects, then move onto the next big thing. Titles carry responsibility without conveying power, but you can put the project on your resume. Instead of starting a business and putting our name on it, we buy a franchise. We’ve forgotten how to be responsible We don’t know how to own what we do, just how to package it.

  8. Rachel Bucknall says

    I suspect that as a consultant you probably don’t have the authority or the relationships with decision makers higher up in the organisation to be able to lead most projects you work on. But then, I’m speaking as a graphic designer and we’re rarely granted much authority at all when consulting on a project!

    What I would do in this situation is change the things you can control: when you start a project, ask who is the leader/decision maker so you don’t fall into the trap of assumption again. And be clear from the beginning what your expectations are – in this case you’d do well to explain why sharing those documents with you helps you do your job and even if they choose not to take your advice, at least they’re doing it in an informed manner from the start, rather than dealing with the issue in retrospect.

    Consulting is a funny beast – there’s so many possibilities and of course no job is the same so you can never be entirely prepared at any time. But you can tweak how you work as you go as you come across each new problem to be better for the next time, right? :)

  9. wilfredo pena says

    You are playing multiple roles on this team you are coaching(training or instructing) and each person on a team should play the lead depending on the task. I would like to think good teams don’t have one specific leader, but a community that creates value.

    The communication break down feels like a separate case which needs additional information. Was it a mandate from his leader to keep you out or is the team trying to exercise what you coached them to do without you? You will leave the team at some point.

    Thanks for sharing. It was a good exercise for me.

  10. Julian says

    Being used to stricter separation of project and product responsibility I would see a possible conflict if a product manager can define features and decide upon resources (team) at the same time. SCRUM as a common agile methodology even goes as far as making it impossible for the product responsible (product owner) to change any requirements during defined working iterations (sprints) to keep the team functioning and prevent feature creep and other issues.
    Therefore I would see neither you or the product manager in the role to manage the project but a separate project lead.

  11. says

    This is a really interesting predicament. I’ve heard a lot of people debate the nuance of what it really means to be a “product manager.” In many cases, people conclude that the “manager” moniker refers to managing of the product and not the team, but I think to really manage the product effectively, one has to also lead (maybe manage is the wrong word) the team.

    While there’s plenty to do as a PM, I view any breakdown in communication as my responsibility/fault. Yes, it requires time and energy to be thinking about all of that in addition to doing other PM work, but to be honest, there’s less PM work to be done when a team is communicating and working efficiently.

    While I think you’re right that the natural owner here is the PM, it’s awesome you’re looking at yourself to see how you can affect the outcome. Ultimately, I wonder if this has to do with perceived incentives. No matter how you view the incentives, others can view consultants as not really “part of the team” – they’re often paid based on a specific statement of work (get x done and get paid y) rather than in a more nebulous “stick with us and battle it out in the trenches” way (salary/equity). No matter what you do to get involved at a deeper level and insert yourself in the culture of the company, the “get x done for y” incentive structure reinforces that perception. Thinking out loud a bit here, but perhaps there’s an opportunity to experiment with a different structure in consulting and therefore positively affect the nature of consulting arrangements?

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